Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Interdisciplinary Work on Human Trafficking

A couple of weeks ago, my institution, American University Washington College of Law, together with Harvard Law School and the Watson Institute at Brown University, co-hosted an interdisciplinary roundtable on human trafficking. This was the second of what we hope will be a series of meetings designed to bring social scientists and law professors to share our research and explore the potential for interdisciplinary collaboration. I thought I'd take this opportunity to highlight the excellent research of my roundtable colleagues: anthropologists Denise Brennan (Georgetown), Sealing Cheng (Wellesley), Carole Vance (Columbia), Kay Warren (Brown); sociologists Elizabeth Bernstein (Barnard), Kamala Kempadoo (York), and Rhacel Parrenas (Brown); and law profs Intlawgrrls blogger Dina Haynes (New England School of Law), Janet Halley (Harvard), Prabha Kotiswaran (SOAS), Ali Miller (Berkeley), Kerry Rittich (Toronto), and Hila Shamir (Tel Aviv), and me (American).
Elizabeth Bernstein recently edited a special issue volume of Sexuality Research and Social Policy (logo at left) that included articles by Denise Brennan and Sealing Cheng. Brennan explores how the rhetorical and policy shift in US anti-trafficking law to a focus on domestic youth in prostitution affects broader efforts to combat the trafficking of foreign nationals into the U.S. for non-sexual purposes. Meanwhile, Cheng examines the way in which media portrayals of trafficking can decontextualize and make ahistorical generalizations about sex work and women's migration. As Bernstein explains in the introduction to the volume, these pieces demonstrate how political agendas driving anti-trafficking law and policy tend to collapse all human trafficking -- including exploited labor of migrants more generally -- into the "modern slavery" of forced prostitution. The U.S. has had an outsized influence abroad in this regard, as Halley, Shamir, and Kotiswaran have analyzed in this terrific piece on governance feminism in trafficking, as Parrenas has examined here, and as I have explored here. Such reductionisms contribute to the failure to examine trafficking as a broader migration phenomenon, as Haynes analyzes here.
Over the last decade, we've seen a worldwide proliferation of anti-trafficking laws and policies. Many were adopted on blind faith, with little to no evidence that they would work in practice. Now, insights from our social scientists are forcing us to confront their unintended (and intended) consequences, signaling a need to think more carefully about how best to address the problem of human trafficking.

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